The Blue Bell Creameries factory in Brenham, Texas. (Photo: Flickr/sarowen)
Texas-based ice cream maker Blue Bell Creameries temporarily shut down production of all of its products in late April due to a deadly Listeria contamination that left three people dead.
Now, the company is producing ice cream again, according to announcement on Twitter posted on Wednesday:
We’re busy at our Sylacauga, AL, facility crankin’ out ice cream and building inventory.— Blue Bell Ice Cream (@ILoveBlueBell)August 5, 2015
Response to the announcement ranged from ecstatic to wary:
— Stephanie Schumann (@troubelledour)August 6, 2015
@ILoveBlueBell do you guys still sell Listeria flavored?— Cole Fowler (@jamescolefowler)August 5, 2015
— twilight N (@Twilightseven)August 5, 2015
@ILoveBlueBell great, we’ve missed the blue bell. Don’t screw it up this time with poor quality control and listeria.— Rubicant (@Rubicant)July 23, 2015
The mixed reaction is understandable. In addition to the deaths caused by the outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 10 people in four states were also hospitalized due to illness from the Listeria bacteria believed to have been in Blue Bell products.
Listeriosis, an infection caused by consuming food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes, is life-threatening and kills an estimated 260 people in the U.S. each year.
“In FDA testing, more than 99 percent of Blue Bell products had Listeria in it,” Mike Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, tells Yahoo Health. “It was incredible. It wasn’t high levels, but it was there.”
Blue Bell has said its plants have gone through extensive cleaning and decontamination, but is it enough?
Doyle says it should be. Here’s why: Blue Bell likely had to strip down all of its plant equipment, take it all apart, and fully clean and sanitize everything. That includes getting rid of biofilms, a mucus-like substance that can surround bacteria like Listeria and protect it from sanitizers that would otherwise kill it.
Once that’s completed, the equipment will be tested and re-tested, and the ice cream will be frequently checked and swabbed to make sure it’s listeria-free.
“The FDA has jurisdiction over this, and they’re going to be monitoring the whole thing,” says Doyle. “The FDA is going to be all over these Blue Bell plants for a while.”
Blue Bell will also need to reevaluate and validate its protocol to make sure it’s testing at the right place and time before the ice cream goes out, food safety expert Darin Detwiler, senior policy coordinator at the nonprofit STOP Foodborne Illness and an adjunct professor at Northeastern University, tells Yahoo Health.
Doyle adds that it’s actually not uncommon for Listeria to get into processing facilities, since “some soil contains listeria and it can come in on plant workers’ shoes.” However, “the key is to control it,” he says.
But Detwiler says it’s in Blue Bell’s best interest to make sure its goods are safe, which likely means the company will rigorously test its products before putting them on shelves, now and in the future.
“The whole issue is people’s confidence,” he says. “Blue Bell is going to do anything and everything they can to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Unfortunately, Doyle says there’s no way of visibly telling whether your ice cream is Listeria-free — you have to trust the manufacturer.
While there is always a risk of contracting foodborne illness from any product, Doyle says you shouldn’t stress out about eating Blue Bell ice cream again once it’s back on the market.
Says Doyle: “If the FDA says it’s safe and ready to be consumed, I would feel comfortable eating it.”